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Tuesday, February 26, 2013
To reach NFL, QBs often must find a new spot

By Jane McManus

INDIANAPOLIS -- Denard Robinson, with half of his hand still numb from lingering nerve damage, arrived at the NFL combine to the buzz of scouts and analysts saying they just wanted to see him catch the ball.

Just. Catch. The. Ball.

Seems easy enough for a wide receiver, but that was never Robinson. At 5-foot-10, 199 pounds, Robinson was a dynamic threat as Michigan's quarterback. Over recent months, scouts and agents have talked to him about an NFL future at wide receiver, so he is learning on the job with 32 teams and a herd of television cameras watching, with his whole future on the line -- and a hand that can't feel the ball.

It's kind of different. You're jumping into it. Playing quarterback your whole life and then jumping into playing receiver and you're going against the best. I think I did all right, but I could've done better and I'll continue to get better now.

-- Denard Robinson, on making the switch from quarterback to wide receiver

Every year, there are a few college quarterbacks who get the same message Robinson did: They will be asked to change their position in the NFL. At first, it might be a scout asking how well he can catch a ball. Or he might get an invitation to the Senior Bowl with the letters "WR" next to his name. Agents may ask what matters more to him: being a quarterback or playing in the NFL?

Robinson's debut as a wide receiver at the Senior Bowl the month before hadn't gone as well as he -- or some NFL scouts -- had hoped.

"It's kind of different," Robinson said. "You're jumping into it. Playing quarterback your whole life and then jumping into playing receiver and you're going against the best. I think I did all right, but I could've done better and I'll continue to get better now."

After he was projected by some as a sixth-round choice in the seven-round draft, Robinson's 4.43-second time in the 40-yard dash Sunday was eye-catching. If he can improve his route running and punt return skills over the next month, Robinson can alleviate some of the risk for a team using a precious pick in the draft this April in New York.

"A lot of people gamble, don't you think?" Robinson said with an easy smile. "I think I'd be a pretty sure bet. If a team takes a risk with me, I think it's not a bad risk."

Not every star college quarterback has a pro game. Some high school recruits pick a school that will let them continue to play the position they love, regardless of NFL potential. Others may attend a school that prioritizes what's best for the team over developing a player for the NFL. Still others may not have an NFL-ready arm.

"They've been flying helicopters at best, and the NFL is fighter jets," said private quarterback coach George Whitfield of the fine-tuning needed to play the position in the NFL.

So after years of being the marquee guy, the leader, these players start all over again.

The mental game

Moving from being the guy who calls the plays and touches the ball on every snap to being another cog in the wheel can be a tough transition.

"Quarterbacks identify themselves as that," said Whitfield, who has worked with Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton, Andrew Luck and dozens of high school and college prospects. "You may see yourself as the most skilled position, as the smartest player on the team, as the general: 'I'm the one who leads these guys out of the huddle.' It's bred in you from the time you start playing.

"Imagine being the CEO of a company and being moved to an assistant in human resources."

Case in point: Collin Klein stood at the same podium the day before Robinson. The Kansas State quarterback was peppered with questions about converting to tight end. Would he be willing to make the switch? Klein stood firm, even though it could cost him a job.

"I want to pursue every door that I possibly can at quarterback," he answered firmly. "And until every one of those are closed, I'm not considering anything else."

Klein got his invitation to the NFL combine as a quarterback, but the unconventional throwing motion he exhibited during his workout Sunday wasn't going to convert the nonbelievers.

"That's the pressure on kids," Whitfield said. "How hard can you stick to your guns if this is what the evaluators are saying? It isn't personal. I know kids are going to take it personally, but it's purely business."

Greg Jenkins, the 6-foot-1, 211-pound Alabama State quarterback, didn't see himself as a wide receiver, either. But then he realized that he was applying for a job in a league where the employment statistics are not in his favor. When he was invited to the Collegiate Bowl as a wide receiver, the message was clear.

"I'm a competitor," Jenkins said. "I want to be a quarterback first, but I want to feed my family. You have to put your pride aside."

His agent, Stephen Starks, said Jenkins has also done some training at running back and defensive back.

"He's just a very versatile athlete," Starks said. "The only thing he doesn't do well on a football field right now is install the sprinklers."

Jenkins is working out up to three times a day; one of those workouts hones his quarterback skills, another his route-running technique. "Knowing when to burst," he said, "not looking at the ground when I'm running. Little things a wide receiver should know, but I haven't played that."

Jenkins caught three passes for 40 yards at the Collegiate Bowl, and that was on instinct.

"It's starting to grow on me," he said. "But I approach it as playing both. I'm not going to put all my eggs in one basket."

Maybe that's his quarterback training, wanting to do what's best for his team before he knows what the team will ask of him.

Taking the hit

Zach Miller came from the University of Nebraska-Omaha, a Division II school 54 miles north of the powerhouse Cornhuskers. In 2009, some teams were looking at Miller as a quarterback, but others wanted him as a tight end. Like Jenkins, Miller was trying to do both, and started working out at Test Football Academy in New Jersey.

"You're training for the 40, so that's the first thing," said Kevin Dunn, who helped Miller prepare. "Quarterbacks are usually running 4.8s, 4.7s. Next, route running, getting the feel of the route, sell your moves and your cuts."

Miller discovered a level of physical exhaustion he hadn't experienced at quarterback, and his first training camp after being drafted by the Jaguars felt like a hazing. "The big difference is the physical part," Miller said, "hitting every play." He missed tackles and dropped passes in two-a-days and then had to get up the next morning and do it all again.

Now with Tampa Bay after rehabbing a leg injury, Miller has enjoyed longevity in the league that wasn't in the cards before he moved to tight end.

"What else was I going to do?" Miller said. "I loved playing football, and playing in the NFL was a dream."

The Ravens' Anquan Boldin, former Steelers Antwaan Randle El and Hines Ward and the Bills' Brad Smith are some of the quarterback-turned-wide-receiver success stories. But converting a player is a project, with no guarantee of success. Arkansas' Matt Jones and Nebraska's Eric Crouch failed to complete the jump, like any number of others from less-heralded institutions.

At the 2005 combine, Jones stood 6-foot-6 and weighed 242 pounds. He ran a 4.37 in the 40-yard dash. He was a conversion project but, with a frame like that, an irresistible one.

The Jaguars took him with the 21st overall pick as a wide receiver. He was picked over Roddy White, Vincent Jackson and -- wait for it -- Aaron Rodgers. Jones seemed to be picking up the position, but undermined his career with two drug- and alcohol-related arrests and a violation of the NFL's substance-abuse policy.

"It is risky and something that every good agent has to consider at length," said Starks, Jenkins' agent. "The example of Eric Crouch is a good one. What reduced the risk? I didn't get any push-back from Greg. He was open to accepting the challenge."

Gold at the end of the rainbow

The payoff of getting a player with a quarterback's mentality at another position can be invaluable. Look at Boldin's uncanny ability to see the field, or Ward's effect on the Steelers' locker room.

"They know everyone's routes and they know the playbook better than anyone," Dunn said. "Converting to wide receiver would be perfect -- as long as you have the skill to back it up."

With Robinson, it could be wide receiver, punt returner, maybe even cornerback. Former long-time Cowboys vice president of player personnel Gil Brandt tweeted from Lucas Oil Stadium over the weekend: "Had three conversations with Denard Robinson about playing corner in NFL. Most college QBs are averse to switching positions. Not Denard."

It's simple. As much as Robinson -- or Jenkins or Miller -- wanted to be a quarterback, they want even more to play in the NFL.

"As long as I can feed my family playing the game I love?" Jenkins said. "I can't complain."